Despite fears of a repeat of last week’s brutal crackdown on protesters, a rally in support of Taiwan’s “Sunflower Movement” took place without incident in Taipei on Sunday. Supporters came from all over the country and protest organizers estimated the turnout at 500,000, while police said there were 116,000 demonstrators. By 8 PM, however, the crowd that had filled Ketagalan Boulevard to hear speeches and music had dispersed peacefully, and volunteers began to clean up the streets.
A much smaller pro-government rally was held on Saturday, with demonstrators numbering around 3,000. Mr Chang, 30, told VICE News why he was there: “We want our democracy back. People with a certain opinion have rushed into congress and occupied it. Democracy has been shut down.” He is not wrong — protesters have been occupying parliament since March 18, but they argue it is President Ma who has shut down Taiwanese democracy with his under-the-table tactics. The protests started around the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party’s arrangement of a trade deal with China, which Taiwanese critics believe would leave their country vulnerable to Beijing’s power.
The makeup of the pro-government rally was predominately older people who chanted “Children, go home!” but, with the turnout for Sunday’s opposition rally surprising everyone, that prospect seems increasingly unlikely.
The Sunflower Movement is becoming increasingly organized. Everything from haircuts and massages, to medical and legal services, can be found on the streets around the occupied Legislative Yuan and all for free. Beefy protesters clad in black, some armed with batons and plastic handcuffs, chat amiably with the police. This new security force has been set up after multiple reports of scooter gangs terrorizing protesters at night. The organizers also fear that provocateurs may try to harm the police.
VICE News gained access inside the parliament building through an entrance guarded by a tight line of protesters, a loose line of police, and one exhausted looking legislator from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. The police have been given permission to guard the entrance by the protesters, but their numbers are strictly controlled. Organiser Mr Liao told me: “We don’t have enough professional persons to keep this place safe. We need some police, but we control their numbers.”
'President Ma is trying to improve Taiwan’s economic situation by being closer with China, but will we lose our sovereignty in doing so?'
All doors to the parliamentary room proper are fully barricaded with tied up chairs bar one, which was left half open. After a temperature check and hand sanitation, we were waved through. Inside it was organized chaos. People lay sprawled on mats and in sleeping bags at the back of the room, or under desks where legislators used to work. A table of free sundries, including bras and vitamins, was stationed at the front. The walls were plastered with protest art. Banners hung all around the portrait of Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China, who is regarded as a founder of modern Taiwan.
Three lawyers sat in black and white robes, ostensibly as impartial observers to the goings on. We asked one of them, Mr Chen, why he was drawn to this protest. “I’ve seen commendable courage from these students,” he said. “President Ma is trying to improve Taiwan’s economic situation by being closer with China, but will we lose our sovereignty in doing so?” That is the question at the heart of the Sunflower Movement. Taiwan already struggles for a place on the international stage and many believe this hotly debated trade deal with China will leave it economically dominated by its bigger neighbor.
Student leader Lin Fei-fan commanded the stage of Sunday’s rally. He is emerging not only as the face of the Sunflower Movement, but as a shrewd politician. Lin is well spoken and respected by young people, in stark contrast to the many gaffes and blunders of the ruling KMT party politicians. Most recently, former KMT legislator Chiu Yi mistook the students’ sunflowers for bananas, earning him much ridicule from press and protesters alike.
Lin and the Sunflower Movement now not only demand the repeal of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, but also a law that would ensure more oversight in regards to government dealings with China, as well as talks on changing the Taiwanese constitution. Meanwhile, President Ma continues to give the movement the cold shoulder, promising that internal discussions are happening. With the second week of demonstrations drawing to a close, and public opinion of the president continuing to plummet, the government can only snub the protesters for so long.